John Savournin is the artistic director of chamber opera and musical theatre company Charles Court Opera. He has written 13 pantomimes and operas and is currently in rehearsals for his latest show The Nativity Panto. He tells Ruth Comerford what makes a great pantomime…
Tell me about your new show.
Our Christmas shows are always an alternative, off-piste panto experience, with a musical bent. This one won’t be an exception. It’s the story of the nativity, but re-wrapped, if you like. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will certainly bring people a lot of festive cheer and it will tell the story of a special boy that changed the course of human experience at Christmas time.
How did you get into writing and performing?
My parents were steeped in theatre themselves, so I developed an early interest. I remember sitting in the technical rehearsal of an opera that my mum was directing when I was about five years old. I suggested she might want to rebalance some of the flowers on the bed because they looked asymmetrical. She sort of brushed it off, but the next time I looked up, they had been moved. I was also lucky to have a good singing teacher who advised me to think about taking singing more seriously. At the same time, I was very interested in creating work and was devising productions of operas and musicals with a group of friends; the bug to be an all-round creative was always lurking.
Tell me about the process of writing a new show.
We usually start formulating a storyboard and getting an idea for what kind of music we’d like to include or write almost as soon as the previous one has closed. It tends to be a number of long nights thrashing out what the story should be. Then I’ll knuckle down for pretty much a month and plan it all completely before we get into the rehearsal room. But it’s in our minds for about a year.
What makes a great pantomime?
It’s important to have a strong story that’s unexpected as well as a strong set of characters you can really invest in. Our panto tends to have a mix of music genres – from pop to opera to classical songs to reworked bits of orchestra music – and for us, that’s what makes it special. To have singers with a classical background letting their hair down to something like the Spice Girls or Beyoncé is really special.
Why do people go to pantomimes?
I think pantomime is theatre for everybody, and it’s a platform through which anything can happen. That’s appealing to people. It’s something anyone aged one to 100 can watch together and all get something from. Also, it’s been a huge part of Britain’s theatrical tapestry for a long time – it was even greater in the Victorian era. Even the Royal Opera House was known for pantomimes and still ran the tradition at Christmas well into the 20th century. It’s something that’s part of the country’s psyche, if you like, and it’s remained there. The stories are often drawn from the familiar in some way and there’s something enticing about that.
The Nativity Panto – A Not-So Silent Night runs at London’s King’s Head Theatre from November 29 to January 11